Social Media Giants Get a Failing Grade on Climate Disinformation

As the latest IPCC report faults disinformation for delaying climate action, a newly released scorecard finds that the major social media platforms’ plans to handle climate disinformation remain murky.
Social Media Giants Get a Failing Grade on Climate Disinformation
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A sign at Facebook's headquarters shows the site's "thumbs up" image holding a leafy green plant, and the words 1 Hacker Way.
A sign at Facebook's Menlo Park headquarters, 1 Hacker Way. Credit: Anthony Quintano (CC BY 2.0)

The first page of Menlo Park, California’s 2030 Climate Action Plan shows a map predicting which parts of the city will be underwater by the end of the century, flooded by the rising waters of San Francisco Bay. The famed headquarters of Facebook’s parent company Meta appears as an island, the roads leading to 1 Hacker Way erased by a sea of blue.

Sea level rise is just one imminent threat for Silicon Valley. Concerns about the upcoming wildfire season are looming over California, with over 95 percent of the state experiencing severe or extreme drought. Climate scientists warn future years may bring wildfire smoke at levels the San Francisco Chronicle calls “practically unbearable.”

As the impacts of the climate crisis have drawn nearer for all of us, Meta has begun speaking about climate change in clear, direct terms in its public statements. “Climate change is the greatest threat we all face — and the need to act grows more urgent every day,” Nick Clegg, the company’s vice president of global affairs and communications, said in November 2021. “The science is clear and unambiguous.”

But when it comes to the fight to curb climate change disinformation online, tech giants are failing to communicate clearly about the spread of climate disinformation on their platforms and what they intend to do about it, a new report published today by Friends of the Earth, Avaaz and Greenpeace finds.

“None of the social media companies got more than half of the points available, failing miserably to protect users from harmful climate disinformation,” said Julia Masters, campaign manager of the Climate Disinformation Coalition at Friends of the Earth.

The scorecard ranks tech giants on their transparency on climate disinformation and their plans to respond. 

Meta — along with TikTok and Twitter — received worse grades than both YouTube and Pinterest.

Earlier this month, Pinterest adopted new policies on climate disinformation, pledging that it won’t allow users or advertisers to spread climate denial and distortions on its site.

“Pinterest has proved it’s possible to address climate disinformation in community guidelines,” Masters added, “and it’s past time for other companies to follow suit.”

The new scorecard comes shortly after the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent report found that the window of opportunity for climate action is “brief and rapidly closing.” Meanwhile, the IPCC added, “[v]ested interests have generated rhetoric and misinformation that undermines climate science and disregards risk and urgency.”

“This analysis expands on what the IPCC identified in its latest report – the pernicious spread of climate disinformation across social media is a key reason for the delay in the transition to the clean energy economy that we need for a livable future,” said Charlie Cray, senior strategist at Greenpeace USA.

“Social media companies’ passive and inscrutable response to climate disinformation has allowed them to boost their numbers while driving us towards total planetary collapse. This must end now,” Cray said. “We need more transparency and aggressive action before any of the platforms can credibly claim to foster the norms of digital discourse that are essential to our collective survival.”

The group’s scorecard, titled “In the Dark,” uses a 27-point metric to grade social media companies on their climate disinformation policies, assigning Pinterest and YouTube grades of 14, while Facebook, TikTok and Twitter received grades of 9, 7 and 5 points, respectively.

“There is a gross lack of transparency, as these companies conceal much of the data about the prevalence of digital climate dis/misinformation and any internal measures taken to address its spread,” the scorecard says.

The scorecard defines disinformation as “any verifiably false or misleading content that is spread with the intention to deceive or secure economic or political gain, and which has the potential to cause public harm.” It’s based on a definition of climate mis/disinformation that was circulated in an open letter to tech giants in the leadup to the COP26 negotiations by Friends of the Earth, Avaaz and others.

The scorecard distinguishes between what it calls “freedom of speech and freedom of reach,” meaning that the right to speech does not encompass the right to access powerful social media algorithms. “Past research has shown that much of the climate dis/misinformation on social media is spread by a small number of actors, often with vested economic and political interests, and amplified by social media recommendation algorithms designed to maximize human attention and profit,” the scorecard says.

The scorecard also warns tech giants that regulators are watching — and not just in the U.S. “In the European Union, there is significant movement towards regulating Big Tech, including requiring transparency on their content policies and practices,” it says.

Twitter received the worst grades on transparency, with the report finding a “lack of clarity on dis/misinformation review policies and vague enforcement reporting information.”

In response to the scorecard, a Meta spokesperson pointed to the company’s page on climate change information. “We’ve also been transparent about the fact that if someone posts content that goes against our Community Standards, we’ll remove it and may then apply a strike to their account,” he said.

Meta’s leadership has previously disclaimed responsibility for the disconnect between climate disinformation and reality, even while acknowledging the problems climate disinformation creates. “I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Fox News in 2020. Zuckerberg later admitted in testimony before the US Congress that climate misinformation is “a big issue.”

“As fossil fuel industry-backed climate disinformation pollutes users’ social media feeds and fans the flames of the climate crisis, tech companies are leaving the public in the dark,” said Rebecca Lenn, senior advisor for Avaaz. “It’s time for Big Tech to answer the years-long call from researchers, advocates, and lawmakers for full transparency on the scale of climate disinformation online and their policies to combat it.”

UPDATED: This article has been updated on April 21, 2022 to include comment from Meta received after publication.

Social Media Giants Get a Failing Grade on Climate Disinformation
Sharon Kelly is an attorney and freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She has reported for The New York Times, The Guardian, The Nation, National Wildlife, Earth Island Journal, and a variety of other publications. Prior to beginning freelance writing, she worked as a law clerk for the ACLU of Delaware.

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